OPINION: Biden outlines education vision with public schools at its core

President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (Melina Mara/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, left, and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi addresses a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (Melina Mara/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In first formal speech to Congress, president calls for universal preschool and free community college

President Joe Biden’s first formal address to Congress lauded the role of public education in America’s primacy in the 20th century, saying 12 years of taxpayer-funded public education “made us the best-educated, best-prepared nation in the world ... Universal public schools and college aid opened wide the doors of opportunity.”

However, in the 21st century, Biden said educating Americans through high school is no longer sufficient, proposing free pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and community college as key planks in his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Twelve years of taxpayer-funded education could grow to 15 or 16 years.

“Twelve years is no longer enough today to compete with the rest of the world in the 21st century. That’s why my American Families Plan guarantees four additional years of public education for every person in America, starting as early as we can,” he said.

That was a dramatic change from his predecessor. Former President Donald Trump spoke rarely about public schools, and never fondly. “There’s no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly,” he said as a presidential nominee in 2016, and four years later as president, calling school choice “the civil rights of all time in this country.”

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s strongest message to public schools was open for in-person classes or risk their federal funding, tweeting in July of last year: “In Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and many other countries, SCHOOLS ARE OPEN WITH NO PROBLEMS. The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!”

Trump’s education positions surfaced in the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s speech, delivered Wednesday night by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who said, “Our public schools should have reopened months ago. Other countries’ did. Private and religious schools did. Science has shown for months that schools are safe. But too often, powerful grown-ups set science aside. And kids like me were left behind. The clearest case I’ve seen for school choice in our lifetime is because we know that education is the closest thing to magic in America.”

 Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., delivers the Republican response to President Joe Biden's speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Washington. (Senate Television via AP)
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., delivers the Republican response to President Joe Biden's speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Washington. (Senate Television via AP)

Credit: Uncredited

Credit: Uncredited

As former President Barack Obama often did in his speeches to the nation, Biden cited education research, noting studies show two years of universal, high-quality preschool better positions children to graduate high school and enroll in a postsecondary institution.

“When you add two years of free community college on top of that, you begin to change the dynamic. We can do that. And we’ll increase Pell Grants and invest in historical Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges, minority serving institutions. The reason is, they don’t have the endowments,” said Biden.

The president referenced the classroom experience of his wife, Jill Biden, saying, “Jill is a community college professor who teaches today as first lady. She’s long said — if I heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times, ‘Joe, any country that out-educates us is going to outcompete us.’”

The president’s focus on public education rankled choice advocates. “While we salute the aspiration to create the ‘best-educated generation in U.S. history,’ this goal can come about only if students have access to schools that work for them,” said Jeanne Allen, the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform, in a statement. “Instead, the Biden Administration wants to issue a blank check to institutions that have failed the vast majority of students attending them.”

But Biden’s comments impressed public school advocates, including Raymond Pierce, president and CEO of the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation. “President Biden laid out an uplifting, hopeful, and common-sense approach to advancing equity in the United States by making necessary investments in high-quality, accessible childcare, in high-quality, accessible education from pre-k through community college, and in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities that develop leaders like Vice President Kamala Harris, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.”

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